Publishing Cube Orbit on App Stores – Expectations vs. Reality (incl. data on Apple Feature)

This article describes the first week after launching Cube Orbit on the Apple App Store and Cube Orbit on the Google Play Store. Check out the game and store page, it will give some context to the rest of the article.

This is a follow up to 4 Gamedev Concepts all Solo Mobile Gamedevs Should Know that I wrote on launch day, explaining my general approach to Cube Orbit.

Marketing

I had a very hard time producing good marketing materials. Since most of the aethetics of Cube Orbit lay in the feel, movement, and animations. Therefore, the screenshots feel very blend. The gameplay (even it play tested well) is very hard to describe. It always reads like something you have seen a lot of times before. Due to its abstract nature, there are also no narrative elements that help. Which makes it also hard to identify keywords for placement and ASO.

Anyhow, I went forward and did the usual “put it on all forums and write a lot of press”-thing. Tigsource, Made with Unity, Reddit, Itch.io, TouchArcade Forums. Wrote to 200 press outlets; front door like everybody else, since I have no contacts at all. Used social media to the best of my abilities. I ended up with

  • almost no traffic from social media and forums, besides a few 100 visits via reddit
  • only paid review offers (about 10) that I declined  and 3 simple listing. 3 reviews on very small/new outlets
  • sheer luck: Apple featured Cube Orbit as “New games we love” in the US store:

Numbers

What you are actually here for.

After getting a few hundred iOS installs from category list features around the globe (except US) nothing happened for a few days. No installs from the Apple store only a very few from the Google store. Mostly friends and family with a few rates+reviews. Totally sad. Marketing not really working, at all.

On Mar 16th the obligatory getting stolen by some Chinese app store with over about 1k installs over the next days. I have no control over this, but I guess this happens to almost all Android apps at some point. Luckily most of the ad request seem to penetrate the Great Firewall.

Then suddenly the feature by Apple in the US store. Here most of the iOS installs come from. Which is kinda great. Who am I to complain, a very small solo dev from somewhere, but this also made me wonder if I am passing on a great opportunity here. Should this feature do more? On Mar 17 it brought me about 3k users from 2,1m impressions (like the phone on my phone above). I had a impression to store page conversion of 3% and a store page to install conversion of about 5%. Based on this article these numbers are okay-ish, but certainly not good. My bad description and blend screenshots might be a reason.

To better optimize RVE later, I tracked some numbers with Google analytics about ads, shares, and rates. Unfortunately I fucked up with some of the numbers. The mediocre share and rate clicks are probably due to the fact that I offer share and rate buttons too late in the game. In an attempt to only offer these share/rate opportunity to “hooked” users, in oder to get good rates/reviews and favorable shares, I am only offering these to a fraction of the total users. Here, you also see the conversion for the optional reward ads. 5% is probably quit low. The only incentive to click ads is in game currency, boosts, and upgrades. Which (a) require the user to fully grasp these concepts, which is only true for the small percentage of “hooked” users. (b) the balance is off and players get enough money, boost, and upgrades through normal gameplay.

To counter the lack of shares, rates, and ad clicks, I made a new version with different balance and earlier and fixed rate/share offers. But unfortunately I am stuck in Apples review process for about three days now. How could you ever fine tune or even effectively A/B test when each update takes a couple of days? Is there a framework that allows you to change in-game variables remotely? I definitely need to use this or build such a thing.

Finally, whats up with Google Play? There is almost no organic traffic/installs on the Play store. Is this normal now? When I published “Rope the Frog” and “Gravity Racing Madness” a few years ago, we relatively quickly got to 100-300 installs a day in a similar szenario. In the end, the Apple store manages to give me 60 users playing at the very same time at any time, while Google does not even manage to give me 60 total installs. WTF Google?

Summary: My own efforts to marked Cube Orbit lead to almost nothing. Apples feature was great. But since the lack of my experience, I have the feeling I did a lot of mistakes and passed on a good opportunity.

4 Gamedev Concepts all Solo Mobile Gamedevs Should Know (Cube Orbit – Released)

It’s done. Cube Orbit is now available from all three major App stores (Apple App Store, Google Play, Amazon). During the development, I spend some procrastination time on gamedev talks and articles. There are a lot of interesting game design concepts and tips. Some of them applied to my context, others don’t. In this post, I try to discuss those gamedev concepts that every solo/hobbiest gamedev in the mobile market should know: Design to your Abilities, Deep Mechanics vs Kitchen Sinking, Retention/Virality/Re-Engagement, One Shoot Marketing. 

1 Design to your Abilities

For me, abilities refers to two things. First, your actual abilities in terms of skills and second, the project scope that you can master in terms of time, focus, and resolve. Lets start with skills. Large game studios and most indies you know employ multiple persons with different “set of skills”. Therefore, their games have it all: captivating stories, gorgeous graphics, funky sounds, great balance, feel, and contain no bugs (well only a few bugs). And don’t forget all the trailers, posters, t-shirts, forums, communities, wikis, guerrilla marketing campaigns, blogs, posts, talks, etc. As a (part time) solo developer it is unlikely that you master all the necessary skills. At least I don’t, and I would consider myself a rather arrogant fellow. But I think, you can still make games that have some value. But, you need to focus on something you are good at.

I personally consider myself to be a good programmer, I am good with colors, and have basic graphic design knowledge (incl. the respective adobe skills). I am bad at figurative illustrations, animations, writing (thx for reading anyway), sound, and PR. Strengthen your strengths and manage your weaknesses. Therefore, I concentrate on unique mechanics, which I can program even if they are no prior resources about them, abstract graphics (cuuuuubbbbeees) and abstract narrative (see trailer). I use cc or bought sound design/music, and do the base-line things for anything else. If you happen to be a good artist and weak programmer, you might prefer a established genre with existing engine support and tutorials that keep your programming load low. If you are good at sounds, keep the UI simple and dark and create atmosphere with sound. If you are a musician … you get the picture.

Your time, focus and resolve determines the scope of your game. I for myself published three small projects (Cube Orbit, Gravity Racing Madness, Rope the Frog) with about 3-month of development time and started two more ambitious projects that I worked on for about 6-12 month. Guess which projects did not get finished. What is right for you, highly depends on your circumstances and character. If you happen to start multiple projects without finishing and publishing one, start smaller projects and keep a publishing mindset. Remember, when you published your game, you can start the next game.

2 Deep Mechanics vs Kitchen Sinking

Deep mechanics refers to multiple layers of game mechanics that unfold to the player gradually as they get better at your game. This continuous process keeps players engaged since they are constantly exploring new things and can try new strategies. Kitchen sinking (any design, not just games) refers to adding random/common stuff to your design if your design appears too less, dull, or boring. Common game design examples are power-ups, level-ups, achievements, leader boards, etc. that are just added because the core game mechanic on its own isn’t fun. The inexperienced game designer (e.g. me) usually intends to do deep mechanics but end up doing kitchen sinking. Once, I learned about these two concepts, it felt easier to distinguish both and to reason about game design decisions. Do my power-ups have a purpose and help to extend the core game loop? Can the user successfully use new strategies once you discovers game mechanics X. Does the player need to adopt his tactics once he reaches level so and so?

3 Retention, Virality, Re-Engagement

Disclaimer: In the old days games were sold at a fix price. Once marketing had done the dirty job of taking your hard earned money, game designers could give you the best possible entertainment without further marketing/moneytization constrains. In the mobile world, things are different. Marketing gives your game away for free, and game design need to constantly apply cheap psychology  tricks to lure players into buying things, clicking ads, or sharing stuff. This section of the article is all about finding the right balance between earning some money and keeping your moral compass westward-ish. Don’t hate.

In their very entertaining and educating GDC talk the Hipster Whale Guys of Crossy Road fame discuss RVE or Retention, Virality, Re-Engagement as a major success factor for their game. They basically stipulate that you need specific game mechanics to actively boost your apps retention (aka keep users in your game), virality (users share your game), and user re-engagement (users come back to your came continuously) to succeed in the mobil marked, especially with a non advertising (no user buys) marketing strategy. Since my lack of experience in this particular field, I decided to basically transfer their ideas and techniques to Cube Orbit.

Retention

How do you keep players in your game? Have an interesting game with thinks to explore. There are two thinks that I wanted to do. First, offer deep mechanics. If there are several layers of mechanics, techniques and tactics that you can discover to improve your play then you are more engaged and psyched to explore more. Second, offer immediate goals to the player. This can be to reach a new level, finance upgrades, unlock new characters, achievements, etc. In Cube Orbit this is all about levels and upgrades. Probably the weakest point in the game. Achievements could be a cheap improvement. I know that many gamers like them, but I’ve troubles implementing them since they never got to me personally.

A distinctive retention feature that I stole from other games are gifts. It is basically a staged christmas that is promised every so and so minutes. After each level or game the user is reminded that they will get a random treat, if they just keep playing for x minutes more. The actual gifts are also a great way to remind the users of additional game features like boosts, upgrades, level-ups, characters. You want the user to know that these things exist, since these are usually your moneytization drivers (incentives to spend in-game currency or ad-time).

Virality

Constant reminders to share or rate a game are annoying as ads. No one wants to be forced to share something, you need to actually want to share something. That means the player needs to feel that your game or a particular game asset will provide value to his/her peers. You can basically control what they can share and when they can share it. The questions is now are what do players feel good about and when do they feel good about it.

The what-to-share is about your game, so better make a good game. But it can also refer to a certain game asset that your game provides or even better that the user “creates” and hence feels particular good about. In Crossy Road the game makes funny pictures of you failing. In other games like Mars: Mars, players can use a selfie or screenshot feature to make in game pictures themselves. In Cube Orbit, I make screenshots of particular intense in-game situations.

The when-to-share is about finding those times where the player is at a particular high. He got a new high-score, an achievement, beat a level he tried for 10 times, etc. This also means that you only allow people to share at these points in time and that you keep the option to share from them at all other times. The same can be said about rating your game. In Cube Orbit sharing and rating are only offered after the player beat a hard level or beat a level very closely. I also try to not over do it and keep the options to share and rate very sparsely.

Re-Engagement

Now it gets dirty. How can we help (aka notify) players to make the “right” choice and come back to our game the next day? If you played mobile games for a while, you probably know all the industry tricks. Candy Crush (and many others) for example only let you play a certain amount per day and therefore remind you the next day that you can play again. Players either buy game time with currency or get push-notified into playing again and again. Win-win, very clever. Tap and/or Waiting games have it build into their core mechanic. Every so and so you can do another action and of course you are notified. Daily gifts are also a neat trick and a proper excuse for notifications. There are a thousand more tricks.

In Cube Orbit, I took it maybe to far. I tied re-engagement and the level-up system. You loose hard earned level-ups over time and are notified to better play before you loose the benefits of a level-up. This has two positive side-effects, players cannot really max-out and they are constantly reminded that there actually are level-ups, that they can get them, or click an ad for them. I decided to make players loose their level-ups over time regardless if they are playing or not. Another possibility is to let them keep level-ups if they play and only make them loose level-ups if they don’t play. Better or Worse?

4 One Shoot Marketing

“To little, to late” is the common mantra in articles and presentations on (indie-)game marketing. This is probably true (these guys have way more experience than I have), but not all projects are made equal. What is true for a seasoned indie-dev studio on a 2-year PC game project, is not necessarily true for a hobby gamedev on his first mobile title. Should you invest your (and all other’s time) in project announcements, dev-logs, life-coding-streams, event-booths, teaser-trailers, alpha-keys, etc?

In my context (mildly talented solo, hobby, mobile gamedev), I am confronted with three facts. First, I don’t have a name, nobody knows me. Second, I am working part-time on a three month project. Third, its for mobile. Consequently, I am not in a position to (and also do not have the resources to) effectively build a community or build-up hype with ideas, screenshots, and trailers alone. Therefore, I should focus my limited means: One Shoot Marketing. 

Three components. First, release your game (make sure it is available before continue). Create proper marketing assets: feature graphic, screenshots, trailer, promotional texts. Second, use all channels that you can directly control to spread these assets: twitter, facebook, tumblr, your homepage, reddit, MWU, slidedb, tigsource, itch.io, etc. Thirdly, try others to use the channels they control to help you: write to a couple hundred game press outlets. The latter is probably the most tricky one. I admit I have not much experience with this. I try to make it easy for writers to look up details about my game, provide a proper presskit with texts (link to Cube Orbit’s presskit), interesting stories, images, logos, screenshots, etc.

To keep a sane mind through all this. I try to manage my expectations and set concrete goals. From my experience with Rope the Frog and Gravity Racing Madness, think that securing a dozen articles and a couple hundred k installs during the first three month should be realistic. I’ll try to provide some data, once I am done with this part marketing.

Cube Orbit – Almost Finished

Before Christmas, I started yet another game project. I had the core game loop prototyped almost a year ago. It always felt fairly accessible as well as fun and from a developers/designers perspective it promised to be a project with limited scope. Just what I needed to finally finish a game, since my last game “Gravity Racing Madness” was released almost 4 years ago. Now it is finally there. The first people play the alpha, I feature freezed; we are still tweaking the right balance, but that is it. There even is a website.

Cube Orbit is a free-to-play casual match-3 single player game with 3D graphics. An average run lasts between 45s and 10 minutes. The perfect distraction for commutes, standing in line, or other short annoyances. It was specifically designed for mobile touch devices. The game has a fairly abstract design with no references to violence, sexuality, drugs, or inappropriate language. It might be problematic for players with photosensitivity.

Digging into colored cube structures is aesthetically pleasing and naturally relaxing. Juxtaposition with a timer leads to a rewarding and challanging experience. The coloring cooldown is neccessary to avoid winning the game solely by fantic tapping and adds another dimension of depth to the game. Carefully choosen bonuses, powerups, and skills allow for long-term fun with the game.

“Kathi Marries Markus”: New Game Project Revealed

Last week I finally married the mother of my two children, Kathi. Over the preparations for the wedding ceremony, we start joking about an (im)possible game that retells the various anecdotes that constitute our relationship. While we first thought that this can only be entertaining to people close to us, like our friends and family, we soon realized that the underlying themes are pretty universal and that getting-to-know-each-other-stories are something almost anybody can relate too. A new game was born. Well maybe not yet born, but say conceived. Ideally, I wanted to put out a playable prototype before the wedding to entertain our wedding guests. At that point it already was only a couple of week before the ceremony and still so much to do that was not designing/programming games. Therefore, I was trying to find a very simple game mechanical structure with a strong aim at narrative. I found this base game play in an indy piece called Ernesto. Indy impressions covered this early flash-based prototype of it a while ago, and Argentina based developer Daniel Benmergui (of Storyteller fame) is currently working on a revised and marketable version of it. (Skip this if you looked Ernesto up.) The game presents you with a randomly generated grid of event tiles and it is the players task to find the optimal way (or at least a way that does not kill you) through this grid. Each event influence character stats: gain money, loose health, etc. This minimal version of an RPG is very accessible and since each event conveys a piece of a random story, it allows me to realize various themes and tropes of a game story idea by creating event/tile types. This makes it also easily extendable (think episodes or DLC). In a first, I replaced the typical RPG fantasy/medival/magic like mechanics with once that fit the relationship/marriage theme and create a few dozens events that allow you to replay my (or your) relationships. You know date, overcome inevitable fights, increase your love and manage the various aspects of regular live to roller-coaster though thick and thin with your spouse. Expect a first gameplay video and more screenshots soon.

Environment the Third: Considering the Camera Angle and Focal Distance First

2013-01-screenshot-1

The current game environment (see screenshot) has flaws:

  1. Its going for a realistic look which requires lots of texture work and large textures.
  2. Elements like bridges and ladders require lots of tris without producing enough buzz.
  3. The pillars block the view even for ridiculously placed cameras. Which requires expensive z-buffer magic (blending and double draw calls) with complex programming.
  4. The confined environment and camera properties call for a backdrop graphic or other kind of background.

Before I dive headless into the next iteration of the environment, I should do some thinking.

Camera angle and focal length determine how much of the environment can be seen. The angle is determined by the game mechanics: one has to be able to see what one has to see to play the game. The focal length is limited: getting the camera to close will distort the view on the important game elements. Besides these contraints, the camera properties can be tailored for the background.

As the following graphics show, longer focal length and steeper angles lead to less visible environment. This effects the environment elements that can be seen, their placement, and their size. Hence it is very useful to fix angle and focal length before hand, work with a placeholder environemnt, and do all the detailed work on the environment later.

Environment-Considerations

Anyhow, since a foto realistic style is beyond my abilities, would require too much effort, and doesn’t really work for an indie game anyways, I decided to go for a simple, more abstract look. Currently I am thinking about “Low Poly Terrains”. Artists like JR Smith, Alexandre Duforest, Vitaliy Prusakov, or Jeremy Kool are examples for this. It still need to test this might be very suited for my needs:

  1. Based on a first look on a few “Low Poly” tutorials, it seems to be doable with my skills.
  2. Since it is just colors, shadows, ambient occlusion (AO), and some paper/grunge texture. It should be possible to combine many les-res, pre backed AO and shadow textures with a single high-res paper/grunge texture that (re)used for all objects. Should deliver good performance. Needs to be tested to make sure it looks good.

Environmental concept art and YouTube

Early concept art of the environment for our first game.

To establish scenery and mood for the new game, I forced myself into digital painting for the first time. After sweating hard for a couple of days and with a little help from youtube, I came up with this beaut’ here. While it certainly does not reach the masters I learned from, it provides a sufficient starting point to create further assets for my “Zuma meets The Binding of Isaac” genre-mix.

Here is a list of YouTube tutorials that I found rather useful and complementary to each other. I hope this helps you to filter the abundance of vids for this subject matter.

 

Photoshop basics for painting digitally

The following video series explains the basics for using a drawing tables, photoshop brushes, colors, wet-in-wet color mixing, color pallets, using layers in paintings, lassoing, and more. All you need to start painting in photoshop.

Perspective, Values, Light

As I learned these three concepts are key to any painting. I found the following tutorials most useful for explaining these concepts. (I left out composition: it seems to be hard to teach and explain. At least, I could not find a video on it that I liked.)

Perspective:

Values:

Light:

Example paintings

The amount on high quality timelaps videos with great artists doing great art seems unlimited.

I picked the next clip as an example where the artist only uses basic brushes. Very pure demonstration on composition, perspective, values, and light.

The following uses different techniques relying on textures and custom brushes. But in the end, it is still composition, perspective, values, and light.

Pro artists are fast. Timelapses of pro artists are even faster. This leaves the impression that you have to hurry. I found it very necessary to slow myself down. In this example the artists shows a complete painting drawn in realtime. This is still a way faster speed than I recommend for beginners like me to aim for though.

4 Different Techniques for Digital Inking (and Coloring)

Collection of 4 quality youtube tutorials on different approaches to digital inking (and some coloring). Targets mostly Adobe Illustrator.

To ink drawings is a common task in game development. Game assets like 2D sprites, backgrounds; concepts arts; or marketing assets (e.g. icons, feature graphics) are just a view examples were you have you have to turn your sketches into high quality works of digital art. After watching lots of youtube on the subject, I decided to summarize those video tutorials that I found most helpful. As I learned, there are different techniques that you can use. The trade-off is more effort and more control vs. less effort and less control (i.e. more skill/training required).

The following tutorial shows you the basic shapes of brushes needed for inking (this is very meaningful for all techniques and tutrials). These different brushes give you full control over shape and thickness of your lines. Lines can be drawn with a drawing tablet or with Bezier curves for even more control.

The next tutorial only uses one brush: thin at the beginning and end of a stroke and broader in the middle. This creates the typical “ink-line”. The tutorial presents an interesting technique, where you overshoot lines on purpose to create different line shapes. The overshot ends of a line are later removed with an easy to apply Illustrator trick. This allows to create great results in less time. Still gives you a lot of control. It is most reasonable with a drawing tablet. There is a short version (first) and a long version (second).

The third tutorial only makes sense with a drawing tablet. Using a simple calligraphic brush, different line shapes are created via pressure variations on the drawing tablet. This requires some skill, otherwise you have no control over the lines. If you are patient enough to develop the necessary skill, this produces astonishing results. If you are not patient enough, you better stick to the previous tutorials.

The last one applies the techniques of the previous tutorial to Photoshop. Independent of the uses tool and techniques, this tutorial contains some great general tips for inking and coloring. It is also fun to watch, since the produced example art is astonishing.